Big Trouble


For the second time, director Barry Sonnenfeld has made a movie adaptation that was a funnier, better movie in its original book form. First was 1995’s Get Shorty, an amiable enough time-passer based on the laugh-out-loud Elmore Leonard novel. Now comes, belatedly, Big Trouble, based on Dave Barry’s 1999 novel-length goof, a farce consciously patterned on the work of fellow South Florida writer Carl Hiaasen. Barry, hilariously, was incapable of striking a detached Novelist Stance in his first whack at fiction; he was always throwing in vintage little asides that let you know this wasn’t a serious novel, just a tall tale told by your pal Dave.

Your pal Barry (Sonnenfeld, that is) has no such informal gifts, though he tries, bewilderingly, for a comically scattershot tone by beginning the movie with one narrator and then abandoning him for another. (This might be more accurately blamed on scripters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, whose previous attempts at “comedy” were Destiny Turns on the Radio and Life.) The film is more or less faithful to the events in Barry’s novel, lifts a good deal of Barry’s witty dialogue, and recruits a proven cast of laugh-winners. Why, then, is it so resolutely unfunny? It’s not because of the scene that forced the film’s release to be postponed after 9/11, wherein a pair of oafish thugs successfully smuggle a nuclear bomb onto a plane. That’s unfunny for the same reason everything else here is unfunny: Sonnenfeld, despite early success with the Addams Family films (I credit those to writer Paul Rudnick), just isn’t a natural at this comedy thing.

Failed newspaper writer turned adman Eliot Arnold (Tim Allen) — by virtue of being played by Tim Allen, one supposes — takes center stage, whereas in Barry’s book he was just one of many benighted characters pairing off in pursuit of the nuke. Eliot’s son Matt (Ben Foster) has targeted schoolmate Jenny (Zooey Deschanel) to be “killed” by squirt gun; Eliot falls for Jenny’s mom Anna (Rene Russo), who’s stuck in a grisly marriage to an embezzling lout named Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci). Along for the ride are two cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton), two FBI guys (Omar Epps and Heavy D), two hit men (Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler), and the aforementioned two lowlife thugs (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville). There’s also a drifter named Puggy (Jason Lee), who lives in the Herks’ tree and falls for their frightened maid Nina (Sofia Vergara).

At the beginning, Puggy tells us about Noah’s ark, possibly to explain why Big Trouble has so many duos running around (not to mention goats, bufotenine-spewing toads, and the world’s stupidest dog, a favorite Dave Barry motif). It’s easy to see why Barry structured it that way: endless scenes of two people getting on each other’s nerves. But the pairing-up in the movie seldom works; despite the talented cast, the matchmaking isn’t inspired. Putting the sharp-tongued Janeane Garofalo and the laconic, macho Patrick Warburton together sounds funnier than it turns out to be; Tim Allen and Rene Russo strike no romantic or comedic sparks; Stanley Tucci, steeped in his character’s obnoxiousness and, one hopes, using the paycheck to fund another movie like Big Night, is almost painful to watch. Even that great bulldog Dennis Farina, who outright stole Get Shorty, plays a disappointingly mild hit man.

Sonnenfeld plays most of Barry’s notes but misses the music. I laughed often while reading the book; the movie never got more than a chortle from me. The script makes two particularly senseless changes to Barry’s story near the end: Tim Allen races to the rescue, when readers know it should be Janeane Garofalo (who’s left handcuffed to a shelf along with Tucci, switching places with Warburton’s character in the book, for no reason other than to bring in a lame strip-search gag); and Tucci, hallucinating under the influence of the toad’s bufotenine, thinks the family dog is Martha Stewart. In the book, it was Elizabeth Dole; I could try to explain why Elizabeth Dole was funnier, but if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.

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